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Sticks and stones, words hurt

by Katie Prisco-Buxbaum / Beacon Staff • January 24, 2013

The first time I was called a bitch, I didn’t really know what it meant. I was in the lunch line at my elementary school, and when one of my male peers tried to cut me, I voiced my sense of injustice quite loudly. He turned to me and said, “Don’t be such a bitch.” That shut me right up.

It would be years before I understood that shutting me up was exactly what that word was supposed to do. That “bitch” and words like it were meant to oppress and control women. It is why hearing bitch used in rap songs sounds like nails on a chalkboard to me. It is why when my guy friends use the word, I ask them why powerful men are called competitive and powerful women are bitches. But mostly, it is why I stopped using the word in my daily vocabulary.

These words are derogatory, and as students studying communication, we have a duty to expand our vocabulary to be more inclusive. As a Student Life employee, diversity instruction is built into my annual job training to help student employees respond to possible scenarios in which cultural stereotypes or offensive language are used. All students should have this type of awareness training as an aspect of orientation to help further the inclusive environment Emerson is trying to reinforce.

The term most commonly used to describe using offensive language is political correctness, but that phrase has also been hijacked by both political parties to describe political euphemisms. Conservatives call the wealthy “job creators” and liberals call illegal immigrants “undocumented workers.” Personally, I never liked that because the general public uses it to make excuses for using language that strengthens prejudice and stereotyping due to its negative connotations. This view of a term that was created to eliminate ignorant speech led me to believe that although the terminology for this action may not be valid, the intent behind it’s creation is.

For example, the word “crazy” or “retarded” is not offensive until your mother, father, sister or brother suffers from mental illness and feels hurt by the word being used. Suddenly calling your friend “cray cray” for being fun to hang out with on weekends seems insensitive.

“What I want students to walk away with is an understanding of what these words really mean,” said Tikesha Morgan, Director of Multicultural Student Affairs at Emerson College & GLBTQ Resource. “They might not affect you in the culture that you belong to, but they may affect someone else.”

The best way to address these slurs is to confront the person using them. If you hear someone use the word, pull them aside and have an open discussion about the reasons he or she uses the word and why you find it offensive. My personal tactic is to say “offensive” in a joking tone to let the person know that using the word isn’t something I agree with. This act avoids embarrassing the person or confronting them in public. In most cases, the person gets the hint, and I explain later on why I called them out on that word, and even if they continue using it in their vocabulary, the conversation creates an environment of understanding and respect.

Whether it is film, journalism, or business, using certain words can affect how your colleagues, bosses, and clients perceive you. Many jobs in the communication field expect this level of cultural sensitivity and the ability to communicate across cultures in a global market where this language could jeopardize business relationships.

Many people within the cultures affected by these words respectively have tried to rebrand them to leave them devoid of the hatred with which they were created. The most well-known attempt to rebrand, or use a word in everyday language with a new meaning to diffuse its offensive nature, would be the African Americans’ use of the n-word. Many people, notably rap musicians, use the word to express brotherhood or friendship in order to take it away from those who use it with it’s original racist intent. The problem with this is that the more these words are used, the more acceptable it becomes to people outside these cultures.

Personally, after reading British feminist Caitlin Moran’s book How to be a Woman I tried to reclaim the word “cunt” because most female words are seen as weak or disgusting, but “cunt” is poignant and shocking and brings attention to sexist language as an entity. The reason many feminists try to reclaim the disrespectful terms used to define women is to take away the power these words have over them. Although, when I used the word “cunt,” I got the shocked response that facilitated an intelligent conversation about sexist language; it isn’t just your friends or colleagues that take note of the words you use.

In reclaiming a word, it is important to remember that not everyone is under the same social experiment, and the power to hurt someone is just as present. Other people would look up when I used the word, and it occurred to me that beyond the community that understood my feminist efforts behind the word, I was very likely hurting people around me. Although it is tempting to try to devalue the slur by owning it as your own, taking it away from those who use it for prejudice, I found it is much more effective to eliminate the words and encourage others to do the same.

Everyone draws their personal boundaries in different places. Eliminating words from your vocabulary is no easy feat: It takes self-awareness to retrain the slang you are used to. Choosing which words should or should not be included in this language, depends on whether you think the harmful intent of this word overpowers its utility within language. If people using the term “cray cray” seems harmless because the intent behind it has no malice and they have no personal connection with the harm the word creates for some, then eliminating it may not be a priority. The important thing to consider is that when it comes to  vocabulary so intertwined with hatred, prejudice, and intolerance, there should not be a reason to use the words in the first place.

Being communication experts means being conscious of our diction and the reasoning behind our word choices. By this logic, we all have a responsibility to challenge ourselves to eliminate words that alienate others.